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Philip Roth Discusses His Latest Accolade

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Philip Roth has been a favorite of readers since his memoir Goodbye, Columbus emerged to help define the culture of postwar America. Now the Library of America is releasing Roth's books — a rare step for a living author.

21:45

Other segments from the episode on December 28, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 28, 2005: Interview with Phillip Roth; Interview with David Cronenberg.

Transcript

DATE December 28, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Philip Roth discusses his writing career and the
Library of America publishing his collected works
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Philip Roth has just become the third living author to have his or her
collected works published by the Library of America, a non-profit organization
dedicated to keeping in print authoritative editions of the best American
writing. The first two volumes of the projected eight-volume series have just
been published. They span the years 1959 to '72 and include the books that
made Roth famous: "Goodbye, Columbus" and "Portnoy's Complaint," along with
"When She Was Good," "Our Gang" and "The Breast." You can't accuse Roth of
resting on his laurels. Last year, his novel, "The Plot Against America,"
received great reviews, then became a best-seller. It's just come out in
paperback.

I spoke to Philip Roth about the Library of America editions, but he declined
to do a reading. He's happy to talk about his early work but he doesn't want
to re-read it.

It must be such a relief to know that, like, your early works that have just
come out, you know, and two of those books are particularly famous, "Goodbye,
Columbus" and "Portnoy's Complaint"--it must be so good to know that that's
your early work, the work remains still very admired. But you've gone on to
write a lot of other things, which have won a lot of awards, and received
great reviews and become best-sellers so a lot of writers who have early
success worry about resting on that success for the rest of their career and
some of them are kind of forced to. So that's one worry you don't have. Do
you know what I mean? So that must be very reassuring as these early works
come out.

Mr. PHILIP ROTH (Novelist): Well, it's quite pleasant to think they're going
to come out in those handsome editions. I've forgotten those books. Truly.
I mean, I know vaguely what they're about and I know vaguely the way they're
written, but I haven't read them in I don't know when--30 years? And I did
not read them when the editor was working on them and asked me for--questions
about bits and pieces. I answered his questions about the bits and pieces,
but I didn't go back and re-read the books. They just seem very, very distant
to me.

GROSS: Is there an element of discomfort, too, not just being distant, that
would make you uncomfortable to read it, that it would hurt somehow?

Mr. ROTH: Probably I wouldn't like them. This--I don't think I'm alone in
that kind of reaction. I think many writers, when they read their apprentice
work, which is what I consider this stuff to be, are made uncomfortable by how
young they were. And you shouldn't be uncomfortable about how young you were
when you were young, but, nonetheless, that can happen.

GROSS: I think I've read some of your old work more recently than you have so
I do have some things I want to talk with you about about that.

Mr. ROTH: Were you made uncomfortable by it?

GROSS: No. No. I can handle it just fine.

Mr. ROTH: OK. Great.

GROSS: Let's start with your first book, "Goodbye, Columbus," published in
1959. Now the novella in this book--it's like a novella, and short stories.
The novella in this book has so much to do with class. You know, the main
character comes from a very working-class family in Newark and he falls in
love with a suburban girl, a Jewish girl, who seems to be from another world.
Because, you know, she plays tennis, she wears cashmere sweaters, and it's a
world that, I think, in some ways, seems less intellectual, more materialistic
and shallow but it's still so attractive to him. Could you talk about what
encountering that class meant to you when you were young?

Mr. ROTH: Well, I think...

GROSS: Because you came, like your character, from working-class Newark.

Mr. ROTH: Yeah. That's right. And not from the fancy suburbs. I think,
when you're young, class comes as a great surprise. Most people, I guess,
begin to run into it, as a surprise, when they go to college. Because in
grade school and high school you're more--you're usually with boys and girls
who are from your own background. But when you go to college, there's a mix,
and you meet people who are either poorer than you are or richer than you are,
and I think one is very sensitive to that as a young person, someone, say,
between 17 and 22 or 23. So--and I was not unusual in that respect. I, too,
was stunned by wealth, or what seemed to me to be wealth, and the differences
between the way the wealthy lived, or the privileged lived, and the way we
lived. Not that I ever thought of my own background as poor. I think we
were, actually. But I never experienced it that way. The house--I had
everything I ever wanted. And the neighborhood was more or less homogeneous
but I think classes comes as a great shock, yeah.

GROSS: The main character lives with his Aunt Gladys and she says, about his
girlfriend, `Since when do Jewish people live in Short Hills? They couldn't
be real Jews. Believe me.' Did you hear that kind of attitude about more
upper-middle-class Jews?

Mr. ROTH: No. I don't--I just--that's a bad line I wrote back in 1959.

GROSS: Oh, this isn't a bad line. That's why you didn't want to read it.
This is why you didn't want to read it...

Mr. ROTH: Are you going to keep reading these bad...

GROSS: ...because you're going to be self-conscious about your early writing.

Mr. ROTH: And you're going to read them to me, instead. This is going to be
wonderful.

GROSS: No, I made you feel like I invited you for this torture session. No,
but...

Mr. ROTH: Keep going.

GROSS: Well, let's talk a little bit about finding a voice for this, then.
You know...

Mr. ROTH: OK.

GROSS: ...because in some ways I think "Goodbye, Columbus" is a little bit
like "The Great Gatsby" in the sense that it's in part about class. It's
about looking at a class that's a more privileged class than your own, and
seeing how they live, and seeing both the materialism of it, but also what's
appealing about it. Did you feel influenced by that book at all?

Mr. ROTH: Not particularly, though, to some degree. I think when you speak
about finding a voice, that, of course, is the big problem when you begin.
You don't quite know that's the problem but that is what you're doing. You're
trying to find a voice and you don't know what your voice is. It doesn't come
spontaneously the way a voice comes out of an infant or a two-year-old or
maybe it does come out the way it comes out of a two-year-old. But you don't
know what your natural writing voice is and you don't know where your freedom
lies as a writer, where you can find your verbal freedom. I certainly didn't
know. What I was trying to find in that novella, "Goodbye, Columbus," was a
kind of colloquial, loose voice that could accommodate both ordinary speech and
a little bit of a lyricism, and when you speak of "The Great Gatsby," I
suppose, one of the things I admired in that book when I was young was the
lyrical undertone of many of his sentences.

I--and the other stories in that volume, there are different voices. You
know? The first four books, if you think of "Goodbye, Columbus," the first,
and "Letting Go," my second book, which is my first novel, "When She Was
Good," and "Portnoy's Complaint," could have been written by four different
people, I think. There's no consistent voice. There's no--this is not a bad
thing, by the way. There's no consistent voice. There's no consistent
approach. There's no way in which I've mastered writing a novel. I hadn't
mastered it. I was trying to figure out what a novel was, what a short story
was. I rapidly gave up on short stories. I found that really I liked the
bigger thing, the novel. But it's a search. It's a search for just that
thing that you called the voice.

GROSS: And the fact that you were writing different books and different
stories in different voices, did that make you feel phony because you didn't
find your voice as like one, you know, voice, or did you feel like this is
fine to try on different things and to--because each character has a different
voice, too. I mean, theoretically, you should be able to write in a lot of
different voices.

Mr. ROTH: I think it made me feel anxious. Not phony, no. Because each time
I started the book, I didn't know how to do it. Now that's not changed. All
these years later, each time I begin a book, I don't know how to do it,
there's no--there are no rules laid down for that book, for that story, for
these people, for this subject. So each time you attack a book, or it attacks
you, you're looking for the voice in which to tell it, so, no, not phony but
certainly anxious and curious and willing to work and willing, grudgingly
willing to fail.

Between 1962 and 1967, I didn't publish anything. And the rest of my career,
I published a book--during the rest of my career, I published a book at least
every two years, sometimes one a year. But in that early period, '62 to '67,
'62 I was 29 years old, till '67, I was struggling to find how to write my
next book. I started several, and abandoned them, which is always a very
crushing experience because you work for a month, two, three, four, five, even
six months, and you realize you can't go anywhere because you've taken the
wrong first 10 steps, you know? And they lead you to an impasse.

So in that period, I struggled with just this problem, which is `What do I
sound like? What do I want to sound like?' And where can I find my freedom?'
And so I tried the "Goodbye, Columbus" approach, which was a kind of mildly
arch irony founded on social observation, I suppose. And then in "Letting
Go," I took a bigger bite out of the apple and I wanted to do big--a big book
where things added up, where people were denser in their representation and
where the language was richer and when the story had--where there was more at
stake for everyone. So there's a certain earnest quality to that second book.

GROSS: Where is that point where you decide or where you decided back then
to, like, give up on a book? It--once you've invested that much in a book, it
must be really hard to say, `It's not working. I'm throwing it out and
starting all over again.' But at some point you know that you're--you know,
you're just going further down a blind alley so can you talk a little bit
about what it's like to decide--like how far you have to get against that
brick wall before you're willing to abandon the novel and try something else?

Mr. ROTH: Well, usually it's about two months after you should have done it.
And you struggle. You go in--this hasn't happened to me, by the way, in many
years. But in the beginning it did happen. And you go in every day and you
sit down and struggle with it and what you write is crap. And you know it's
crap; it's dead. It's dead on the page. And--or you write nothing, which is
quite agonizing, or you fall asleep. I got a lot of sleep between 1962 and
1967. But you do--sometimes a strange tiredness comes over you as you sit
there and you think `Didn't I sleep last night? Haven't I slept for nights?
And then you--there's a sofa there or a couch, which is a bad thing to own.
You lie down for a minute, and, blessed living, you awaken and it's lunchtime,
you know. But there I think actually--it's a kind of depression. You can't
face this undoable thing any longer.

GROSS: But were people worried about you then?

Mr. ROTH: (Laughs) Not enough, no.

GROSS: (Laughs) Were you worried about yourself, that this was it? That
maybe you really weren't a good writer?

Mr. ROTH: No, I wasn't--I didn't know if I was a good writer. I just wanted
to be a writer. No, I wasn't worried. I had a lot of tenacity, and I could
take the disappointment, though, I mean, I hated it and it made me feel awful.
But I was determined. And so I don't think anybody was worried.

GROSS: My guest is Philip Roth. The Library of America has just published
the first two volumes of a projected eight-volume collection of his works.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Philip Roth. The Library of America has just published
the first two volumes of his collected works. They include "Portnoy's
Complaint" and "Goodbye, Columbus."

Perhaps the most talked about scenes from "Goodbye, Columbus" have to do with
the diaphragm. There's a scene in which the main character convinces his
girlfriend to buy a diaphragm, and she says, `Well, why do we need it?' You
know, `We're careful.' And he says, `For pleasure.' And it becomes clear he's
talking about for his pleasure because, you know, he's prefer to use that
instead of a condom. And so they argue about this a little bit, but they
finally, you know, agree to go to the Margaret Sanger Clinic, which she's
heard about through reading Mary McCarthy books. And it seems very
groundbreaking at this time to write about a sexual relationship in this kind
of candid way; to actually address that birth control exists and that there
are different kinds of birth controls and that--birth control methods and that
there are relative merits and disadvantages of each one. Did you feel like
this was, you know, outside of Mary McCarthy, entering new territory?

Mr. ROTH: It just seemed to me to be what was; that this is--all takes place
before Roe V. Wade, you know. There was no legalized abortion. Young men and
young women were extremely concerned with the young woman not getting pregnant
because there was no recourse. Recourse generally in those years was
marriage, especially between middle-class kids. So it was a crucial issue
because there was no remedy, short of something drastic, which was either
marriage for very young people or an illegal abortion, which was quite
terrifying, if one even knew how to go about doing it. Therefore, there's a
certain weight to that discussion that probably the book doesn't have any
longer for contemporary young people. But at the time it was truly a
monumental subject that arose between a young man and a young woman.

GROSS: Well, also, one of the first things she's asked, when she calls a
clinic, is: Is she married? I mean, it was a really big step for a young
woman then who was not married to go to a clinic and admit that she was having
sex.

Mr. ROTH: Absolutely. And he's very proud of her for that reason, is he
not? I think. He thinks that--the world of her when she does that. And
she's very pleased with herself, with her courage. And it was. It took--it
may seem like a small thing now, but it really wasn't a small thing for
Brenda, coming from her background, to do. It wasn't a small thing for him to
ask her to do. It wasn't a huge thing, but it has a ripple on the surface
there. Of course, they're undone by that because, as I remember--correct me,
Terry. You read this.

GROSS: OK.

Mr. ROTH: I haven't.

GROSS: Go ahead.

Mr. ROTH: At least I'll try. If I...

GROSS: I'll grade you on your accuracy about your own book.

Mr. ROTH: Well, if I had written the book, I would have the diaphragm
discovered by the mother, who--because between the mother and the daughter in
that book is a certain amount of hostility, ordinary sort of hostility between
mother and daughter at that age. But the mother--I believe it's the
mother--finds the diaphragm, and this is the--this precedes the sort of
argument that ends their affair. And Brenda feels that she can't--having been
revealed--having had her true sexual nature revealed to her family, she
becomes timid, or you might say she becomes sensible. I don't know. I don't
interpret it myself. And she says then, `We can't go on with this,' and they
don't.

So the diaphragm isn't introduced in the story just to have the requisite
diaphragm in the story. But the story turns on that decision and is resolved
because of that decision.

GROSS: And they both judge each other by how they've handled this. She
judges him for bringing it up. He judges her for having left the diaphragm at
her parents' house while she goes to out-of-town college, left it in a place
where it could easily be discovered, and, in fact, it is discovered. And so,
yeah--I mean, their whole personalities, their ways of looking at each other,
are all revealed through their behavior around the diaphragm.

Now you were pointing out that this was no small thing for an unmarried couple
in the late 1950s, when the novel is set. Was it a small thing or a big thing
for your publisher to have so much of the characters of these two people
revolve around birth control?

Mr. ROTH: No, not at all. Publisher of my first book is my publisher once
again. I was away for a while, then I came back to Houghton Mifflin. And
they certainly were--stayed firm in 1959 and 1960. And a man named Paul
Brooks was in charge, and my editor was a wonderful poet named George
Starbuck, who was a friend of mine from the University of Chicago. And no one
said anything other than, `We would like to publish this.' So it wasn't--you
know, I wasn't Henry Miller. It wasn't so taboo. But the moment had come
where one could do this without being alarmed. I wasn't offending the
respectables, or I didn't think I was and nor did Houghton Mifflin think this.
No, no, they behaved admirably and like a good publisher.

GROSS: Philip Roth will be back in the second half of the show. The Library
of America has just published the first two volumes in a projected
eight-volume collection of his works. And his latest novel, "The Plot Against
America," has just been published in paperback. I'm Terry Gross, and this is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, writing "Portnoy's Complaint" and preparing his parents for
the many sexually explicit passages. We continue our conversation with writer
Philip Roth. His early work has just been republished by the Library of
America.

This is FRESH Air. I'm Terry Gross back with Philip Roth. The Library of
America has just published the first two volumes in a projected eight-volume
series of his collected works. The first two cover the years 1959 to '72 and
include "Portnoy's Complaint." A heads-up to parents: In this part of the
interview, we'll talk a bit about how Roth approached the subject of sex in
"Portnoy."

Let's move on to "Portnoy's Complaint," which is a book that so defined you in
the first part of your career. It was published in--was it 1969?

Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm, yes, 1969.

GROSS: And the book is a novel, but it reads almost more like a really long
riff on the subject of a young man breaking away from an overprotective mother
and a kind of ineffectual father and becoming--you know, he was very absorbed,
if not obsessed, with his own sexuality. That's kind of generalizing much too
much and overreducing...

Mr. ROTH: No, I would just add, Terry, that it's told in the form of a
monologue delivered to a psychoanalyst. And since sex is a central subject in
psychoanalysis, that's why they're talking about it. He's not in a bar or in
a classroom. So that's very important, where it takes place and to whom he's
speaking.

GROSS: I know you don't want me to read from your book, but allow me to just
read a couple of lines from his monologue to his psychiatrist. "Look, am I
exaggerating to think it's practically miraculous that I'm ambulatory? The
hysteria and the superstition, the watch-its and the be-carefuls. `You
mustn't do this, you can't do that. Hold it! Don't! You're breaking an
important law.' What? Whose law? Doctor, these people are incredible. These
people are unbelievable. These two"--he's talking about his parents. "These
two are the outstanding producers and packagers of guilt in our time. They
render it from me like fat from a chicken. `Call, Alex.' `Visit, Alex.'
`Alex, keep us informed.' Don't go away without telling us, please. Not
again.'" And so on. And he says to his psychiatrist, "I can't stand anymore
to be frightened like this over nothing. Bless me with manhood. Make me
brave. Make me strong. Make me whole. Enough being a nice Jewish boy,
publicly pleasing my parents while privately pulling my putts. Enough."

So what made you want to write it in that voice of, like, basically, a long
confession and complaint to a psychiatrist?

Mr. ROTH: Well, can I tell you a little bit of the history of how the book
was written?

GROSS: Please.

Mr. ROTH: I think that'll answer...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. ROTH: ...the question. In between 1960 and 1962, I was making a living
by teaching in the Writers' Workshop in Iowa City, and I had among my students
some Jewish students. And almost all of them--not all of them but almost all
of them at one point would write a story in which there was an overbearing
mother and an ineffectual father and an angry daughter or son, depending upon
the sex of the writer. And I saw this thing repeated over and over again, and
I thought, `I'm face to face with folklore.' This is a legend, a true legend
perhaps, but the backgrounds of these people--and they were probably people
born in 1940; I wasn't much older than they were. The backgrounds of these
people all lead them to this legend, and I was impressed by the story.

When--in 1967, I had just finished a book called "When She Was Good," which is
in every way the antithesis of "Portnoy's Complaint" except for one thing.
It's about a daughter's rage against her family. She happens to be a
Midwestern girl, gentile, not Jewish. And her rage is against an alcoholic
father; a grandfather, who she thinks of as ineffectual and a husband who she
can't bear. And eventually she's destroyed by her own rage against them. I
think that set me up to write "Portnoy's Complaint." And so I began by
writing a short story which I called "A Jewish Patient Begins His Analysis."
And I wrote it, and it was published in Esquire magazine. And what I'm trying
to get to is that there was not so much forethought in my writing this book,
nor did I know beforehand what the hell I was doing.

After I wrote that, I thought, `Go ahead. You've found something there.' What
had I found? That in talking to the invisible analyst, or at least using that
as the conceit, I had opened up my verbal floodgates, you know; that I could
go further. And not only that but that the psychoanalytic session gave me
permission to speak freely of sex. When you go back to "Goodbye Columbus,"
though, the diaphragm figures in it; that's a very indirect way of speaking of
their sexual activity, and that was fine with me. I was no more rambunctious
than anybody else. I needed an opening that would permit me to write about
things I knew about that I knew I could be interesting about, but where was I
going to get the permission to do it? Reading Henry Miller gave me a certain
kind of permission. He was marvelous, I thought, in "The Tropic of Cancer."

But aside from all that--maybe "Lolita" in some small way--I didn't know
anything in American literature where there was an open representation of the
madness, say, of masturbation. It's mad. And so I wrote the second
chapter--again, I didn't know it was the second chapter; I thought it was
another story--which was called "Whacking Off." Now I couldn't even have said
that on the radio back in 1969, and look how far we've come. At any rate, I
wrote this story about a character talking to his analyst about masturbating.
And I was--nobody wanted to publish that, and--except a very unlikely magazine
for me for that story, which was a very elite journal called the Partisan
Review. And Philip Rahv, who was the editor, who was a wonderful critic and
literary critic and a very sardonic man, and maybe he took it as a joke; I
don't know. I mean, he published it as a joke. But there it was in the
Partisan Review, and on the cover of Partisan Review, it said: Whacking Off.

And that--the response to that, which was tremendous, though it was a magazine
with a circulation of no more than 2,000, I think, and I think I got $50 for
it--that prompted a tremendous response from people around me. People in New
York--I was living in New York at this time--who read it, and that was when I
was encouraged to go away with a book and say, `OK, you've got the
beginnings.' I had to rewrite bits of the first two chapters once they became
chapters rather than stories. But this is the way to go. You're free. Well,
there's no two words that are more precious to a writer, I mean, than `You're
free,' and...

GROSS: Well, it's interesting that despite heading toward a taboo, that you
felt you're free. Do you know what I mean? Because what's more taboo or what
was more taboo then than writing about masturbation? I mean...

Mr. ROTH: Well, I would--no, I don't think it was the most taboo subject. I
think it was writing about masturbation in a domestic Jewish situation that
was taboo.

GROSS: Right. Yeah, and all that to it, yeah.

Mr. ROTH: Sure. Because if you think of Henry Miller, the book was banned
here for many years, "Tropic of Cancer," but there are things far more taboo.
There's trafficking with whores, there's all kinds of stuff. This isn't
anybody trafficking--although I think he does it at one point I remember.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. ROTH: But this was--the freedom came not from being a wild man. I was
free because I'd found the vessel into which to put this stuff. That is, the
vessel was the psychoanalytic session. There was my freedom, because he's
tried to solve the problem. And the problem has to do with something larger
than masturbation. You didn't think you'd ever hear me say that, did you?

GROSS: So what is the problem, as you see it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROTH: Well, it has to do with brutality, I think, the discovery of one's
own brutality. I think that was most shocking and alarming about the book to
people, and, of course, you know many people were shocked and alarmed; many
people were outraged, and others were delighted and admiring, to be sure. But
among those who were shocked and outraged, I think they were shocked and
outraged by the revelation of brutality, brutality of feeling. I don't
necessarily mean physical brutality--there is some of that in the
book--brutality of feeling, brutality of attitude, brutality of anger and the
excesses that--`You say all this takes place in a Jewish family?' That was
what was shocking. That was the revelation that was shocking, not
masturbation per se.

GROSS: My guest is Philip Roth. The Library of America has just published
the first two volumes of a collected eight-volume series of his collected
works. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Philip Roth. The Library of America has just published
first two volumes, collecting his works from 1959 to '72 and including
"Portnoy's Complaint." A little earlier, he told us that he was teaching when
he got the idea for the characters of Portnoy, his domineering mother and
ineffectual father.

Now you mentioned that this was almost like folklore to you, 'cause you were
teaching and you'd read so many stories by your Jewish students about the...

Mr. ROTH: That's right. Yeah.

GROSS: ...domineering mother, the ineffectual father and the angry child. So
when you wrote this, inspired in part by seeing that this was, like, the
zeitgeist at the time, did you feel like you were writing in partly your own
voice, or did you feel like you were channeling, like, a voice of that
zeitgeist, a voice that was really not your own?

Mr. ROTH: Well, I felt that it was a performance, but I feel that about most
books. I don't mean a performance of a character; I mean the whole book is a
performance. This form I've found, this freedom I've found gave me the
opportunity to give a performance. It was a performance which had a comic
surface, a satiric surface and a grave underside. The comedy we know; it's in
the voice, but the grave underside is about the--not just the burden of
respectability but the burden of transgression, because he's raging against
his own transgressive self. You know, he's actually there to be cured. What
is it he wants to be cured of? Both. He wants to be relieved of the burden
of respectability and all that goes with it and convention and obedience. At
the same time, he wants to be relieved of the burden of transgression and
defiance and rage. And this is the pickle that he's in. And the brutality
that's depicted flows out of that clash, you know, between defying, as it
were, opposites: defying respectability and defying transgression.

I think that's what produced the energy. I think the book has that driving
it, which is energy. It also has a lot of social observation driving it. I
think the chapters I worked on after "Whacking Off," whose titles--one is "The
Jewish Blues" and the other I think I still can't say on the radio.

GROSS: OK.

Mr. ROTH: And they're dense really with observation of the world, the
society he comes from, and its attitudes, and--I mean, the book had, after
all, had to have some body to it, too. It couldn't just be a rant. You have
to rant--to be interesting, you have to rant about something. I have to know
what you're ranting about. And it also has, I would say, genuine lyric
interludes because there's also a love song to the mother as well, and that's
the undercurrent really. There's a love song to the father as well. So it
isn't just--it's not written in one note, I don't think.

And then there's the ending, which I had my doubts about when I wrote it, and
I'd just as soon you wouldn't read from it now.

GROSS: Oh, OK. This book also became famous because of what it said about
Jewish middle-class life or Jewish working-class life. And--like, for
instance, in writing about his father, he writes, "He drank, of course, not
whiskey, like a goy, but mineral oil and milk of magnesia and chewed on Ex-Lax
and ate All-Bran morning and night. He suffered--did he suffer--from
constipation." And the sense of, you know, that--like, his father wasn't,
like, macho, like--you know, he didn't drink whiskey. He drank milk of
magnesia. I mean, that's one of the themes through the book and the sense of,
like, some things are goyish and some things are Jewish. And some of the
things that were goyish, not Jewish, seem much more desirable and exotic and
romantic and manly and so on. And, of course, you took a lot of heat for
that, you know, from Jewish critics and Jewish readers who felt, you know,
that you were insulting your own Jewishness and other people's, too. Were you
prepared for that, and was that something that you were concerned about at all
in writing it, or did you just want to like get that voice right?

Mr. ROTH: I have to admit truly to never being prepared for anything in
terms of responses to my work. And I don't know whether other writers have
the same experience or not. And so the so-called controversies always take me
by surprise, and that--even in the case of the first book, in "Goodbye
Columbus," there was story called "Defender of the Faith" that appeared in The
New Yorker, and I was, of course, thrilled that I had a story in The New
Yorker. I was 24 or something, and I lived in New York in a little basement
apartment on East 10th Street, and I kept running out to 14th Street to the
magazine stands saying, `You got The New Yorker yet?' And the guy's saying,
`Leave me alone, will you?' I must have been out there 10 times that day to
get it. I was very excited. Finally it came in and I took it home and looked
at it 17 different ways. I held it upside down and so on. And lo and behold,
I got a call from the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League telling me that they
had had angry responses from lots of people, and could they meet with me?
Well, I was so delighted just to see the story in The New Yorker, the next
thing I knew I had these angry responses. That has happened to me more than
once, but I wasn't prepared then.

With "Portnoy's Complaint," I can't say that I wasn't prepared for something,
but it was obviously looked at, in one way, an act of provocation. But I just
rode it out, really. It was very fierce. I was called a lot of disgusting
names that were false. I was called a Jew-hater. I was called an
anti-Semite. I was called a self-hater and so on. This was offensive to me
and remains--the people who made those comments remain offensive to me. I
think I was talking about something that was, and which was this kind of rage
existed. This kind of defiance existed, this kind of anguish, by the way. I
think one thing that's in the book that must be noted is the anguish of this
character. This comedy is a form of suffering, and otherwise I wouldn't be
interested in it. It wasn't just a kind of stand-up routine or anything like
that.

So I wasn't prepared for the size of the dose I got, but I understood it, and
I lived with it.

GROSS: My guest is Philip Roth. The Library of America has just published
the first two volumes of a collected eight-volume series of his works. More
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Philip Roth. The Library of America has just published
two volumes, collecting his works from 1959 to '72, including "Portnoy's
Complaint." When we left off, we were talking about how "Portnoy's Complaint"
dealt with sex and life within a neurotic Jewish family, which proved to be
very controversial.

Was your mother prepared for it? Because so many people must have assumed
that the mother in your book was based on your mother, and so many Jewish
mothers who didn't even read "Portnoy's Complaint" were offended by it. So
how did you mother...

Mr. ROTH: I'm good at offending people who don't read the book.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. ROTH: That's probably the strongest thing I do. Well, my mother and
father were pretty good. I have to tell you, I had to prepare them--I felt I
had to prepare them for the publication of this book. That was not something
I had done with the previous three books. But before "Portnoy's Complaint," I
did have to prepare them, I thought, because it became clear as publication
came upon us that it was going to be a big book. I didn't know that for a
while, but then I knew it from my publisher, Random House, the number of books
they were publishing and so on.

And so I was living in New York City at the time, and I invited them over to
have lunch with me. I invited my mother and father to come over from
Elizabeth, New Jersey, where they lived, to have lunch with me. And it wasn't
the first time that I invited them to come over to have lunch, but this was
special. I said I wanted to talk to them about something. And we had lunch,
and I said, `Look, this book is going to come out and it appears as though
it's going to cause a sensation because it has the following ingredients in
it,' and I told them what they were. And I said, `And you are going to be
telephoned by journalists, and you have no experience with that and I want to
prepare you for it. Number one is you don't have to talk to anybody. You can
politely hang up or unpolitely hang up; they're just journalists, you know.

`And they'll be very nice to you and they'll say flattering things to you and
they'll say they know your--their aunt knows your brother who knows their
cousin to try to get you to talk, but you don't have to.' I said, `If you
want to talk, that's fine with me, too. But I want you to know you don't have
to and that you won't give offense to anyone if you don't. And you may be
well-advised not to, but it's finally up to you.'

GROSS: So did they?

Mr. ROTH: Well, the story's better than that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Oh, yeah?

Mr. ROTH: Yeah. They left the restaurant, and I didn't know this till after
my mother died. My father and I were taking a walk--we took many walks after
that, and he was telling me lots of things. That--they got into the taxicab,
and my mother burst into tears. My father said, `What's the matter?' She
said, `He has delusions of grandeur.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROTH: `And he's--I've never known him to be like that. He's not like
that. But he's going to be terribly, terribly disappointed.' And my father
would say, `He knows what he's talking about,' or whatever. My mother said,
`No, I can't bear how hurt he's going to be when this doesn't happen.'

So that was her reaction. In fact, what happened was that they did get
numerous phone calls, and they didn't--they were polite and didn't say
anything. I think my mother said one thing that was quoted by The New York
Times. She just found it very difficult to hang up on The New York Times, you
know. It's really quite easy, but she didn't know that. And she, in response
to the question, the needling question about Jewish mothers and herself, she
said--it was worthy of Pascal, really. She said, "All mothers are Jewish
mothers." That shut them up. So she was quoted in The New York Times of
saying that. And I think there are many Christian mothers around America who
may have taken real exception to that.

GROSS: So I imagine that when she realized that this wasn't delusions of
grandeur, that the book was not only very noticed, it was a huge
best-seller...

Mr. ROTH: Right.

GROSS: ...she must have been very, very proud.

Mr. ROTH: Oh, they were, except they took a certain amount of crap from their
friends about me and what a bad boy I was.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ROTH: And I--and we had to have a second--we had our second about--we had
a series of lunches...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROTH: ...and we had a second lunch about in which I said, `When they say
to you that he's--"How could he write this stuff?"--say to them, "You don't
know how bad it is."'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROTH: I said, `Don't defend me. Don't defend, because it's a losing
game.' I said, `Say "You don't know what we've been through with this boy.
It's been a nightmare. Now everybody knows, thank God," and so on.' Well,
they didn't do it, but they did--you know, people were anxious to needle them
and--not everyone, needless to say.

So the answer is that, yes, they were very proud; they were also confused.
They were not literary people, by any means. They're weren't stupid, but
literature wasn't part of their lives. They were--so they were confused. And
when authority figures in the lives like rabbis and so on charged their son
was being an anti-Semite, they didn't know what to make of it. And my mother
did ask me--I put this line into the ghostwriter, in fact, where the mother
says that--she said to me, `Philip, are you anti-Semitic?' And I said, `Ma,
what do you think?' `No!' I said, `OK, you got it. You know, there it is.'

GROSS: I imagine one of the real big problems of "Portnoy's Complaint" was
figuring out what to do afterwards, because you were so identified with it and
it was written in such a strong voice and it was both so popular and so
objected to at the same time.

Mr. ROTH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: How hard was that?

Mr. ROTH: It wasn't hard, actually, because the mode had come to interest
me, which was a kind of what I called a hyperealistic farce, and I was very
curious to see what I could do with it, with this kind of comedy. I had been
launched into this comedy by "Portnoy's Complaint," and I said to myself, `Go
with it. See what it yields.' I had no idea--you know, it was all new to me,
too. And so I wrote a long story called "On the Air," which I hadn't re-read
in many years, and then I wrote "Our Gang" and "The Breast" and "The Great
American Novel," all of which continued to see what I could mine using this
sort of comic sledgehammer, you know. And I went as far as I could, and I
don't know what it all adds up to, but I was very much in the mode and I
stayed in the mode.

GROSS: Well, Philip Roth, thank you so much for talking with us about some of
your early work. And I hope that as these volumes from the Library of America
continue to be published, we can continue to talk about your work and how it's
evolved. I've really enjoyed talking with you. Thank you very much.

Mr. ROTH: Good. Thank you.

GROSS: Philip Roth. The Library of America has just published the first two
volumes in a projected eight-volume collection of his works. And his latest
novel, "The Plot Against America," has just been published in paperback.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Writer and director David Cronenberg on his new film "A
History of Violence"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're ending 2005 with some of our favorite interviews of the year. I spoke
to film director David Cronenberg in the fall when his film "A History of
Violence" was released. It's showing up on many critics' 10 best lists. In
The Village Voice critics' poll, it won best film of the year, and Cronenberg
won best director. Cronenberg's other film includes "Scanners," "The Dead
Zone," "Videodrome," a remake of "The Fly," "Dead Ringers" and "Naked Lunch."
"A History of Violence" asks whether some people are inherently violent and
whether they can change. The film stars Viggo Mortensen as Tom Stall, a
husband and father, who owns a diner in a small town in Indiana. He becomes a
hero when he kills two armed robbers who are threatening the lives of everyone
in the diner. Soon after, a mysterious man with a scarred face shows up at
the diner, claiming that Tom isn't who he says he is. The mysterious man is
played by Ed Harris.

(Soundbite from "A History of Violence")

Mr. VIGGO MORTENSEN: (As Tom Stall) Well, welcome to Stalls. You gentlemen
like some coffee?

Mr. ED HARRIS: (As Carl Fogaty) You're the hero.

Mr. MORTENSEN: (As Stall) Oh, I don't know, sir. It was just a...

Mr. HARRIS: (As Fogaty) You're the big hero. Sure took care of those two bad
men.

Mr. MORTENSEN: (As Stall) I don't really like talking about it, sir. We're
trying to get back to normal here. Can I offer you gentlemen some coffee?

Mr. HARRIS: (As Fogaty) Sure, give me some coffee. Make it black...

Mr. MORTENSEN: (As Stall) Yes, sir.

Mr. HARRIS: (As Fogaty) ...Joey.

Mr. MORTENSEN: (As Stall) And your friends?

Mr. HARRIS: (As Fogaty) They don't drink coffee. It doesn't agree with
them, Joey.

Mr. MORTENSEN: (As Stall) Who's Joey?

Mr. HARRIS: (As Fogaty) You are.

Mr. MORTENSEN: (As Stall) My name's Tom, sir.

Mr. HARRIS: (As Fogaty) Of course, it is.

GROSS: David Cronenberg, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

Mr. DAVID CRONENBERG (Writer & Director): Thanks.

GROSS: "A History of Violence" is basically saying that everyone, or at least
most people, have the potential to be violent but some people are forced to
become violent to fight a bully, whereas others just seem to have a taste for
it. Do you believe that most people do have that potential?

Mr. CRONENBERG: Well, I think it's innate in us just genetically that we are
capable of violence, but in specific cases, you have to go on a case-by-case
basis. But I think in the movie, it's really examining the ambivalent
attitude that people have towards violence. It's--you know, you sort of don't
want it to come and visit you in your house, but on the other hand, you might
find it rather exhilarating when you see it visited on other people, either in
the movies or alive. So it's--I think the movie does deal--is a meditation on
that ambivalence rather than, you know, saying anything very specific about
genetics, let's say.

GROSS: Well, you know, talking about that ambivalence about violence, I think
movies themselves reflect that, because violent movies are incredibly popular.
People seem to like violent scenes in movies. At the same time, there's
always this kind of attempts to crack down against violence in movies and, you
know, fear that violence in movies will lead to violence in real life. How
does that whole infatuation with violence and movies, how did that affect your
style of shooting the violent sequences?

Mr. CRONENBERG: Well, rather than having an overarching theory of where
violence in cinema should go or shouldn't go or even thinking about my old
movies and what people expect from me or don't expect from me, getting rid of
all that, I think only about what is in this movie, and in it, I say, `OK.
Where does the violence come from?' Well, it comes from specific characters.
What does the violence mean to those characters? Where did they learn to be
violent? That really was the ruling factor in deciding how to portray it.
And I came to the conclusion that for these people--I'm quoting a line from
the movie--"Business would come first." You know, it's business for them.
It's criminal enterprise. It's not sadistic pleasure. It's not ballet. It's
not aesthetics. It's not martial arts. It's business. Get it over with, get
it done. If you have to kill somebody or hurt somebody, you do it as
efficiently as possible and normally using techniques that you've learned on
the street. You know, you haven't been trained professionally. You haven't
been in the Army or anything like that. So that was the tone that I gave to
the violence in the movie.

And it's very intimate, the theory being that when you want to kill someone,
you get close to them. You don't get far away from them. You actually get as
close to them as you can. So the violence in the movie is very, very short
and quick and realistic, no slow motion, no multiple cuts and so on, and it's
very strangely intimate and very physical.

GROSS: What did you have to learn about guns and fighting in order to direct
the film?

Mr. CRONENBERG: Well, I really started only learning about guns through
movies because in Canada, you know, we have very strict gun control laws, and
I actually never held a pistol in my hand until I was making a movie actually.
And in terms of killing on the street, well, I did find a couple of DVDs on
the Internet that purport to teach you how to do exactly that, you know, how
to kill somebody with your bare hands if you're attacked, mugged, robbed. And
that was also one of the places where I found that sense of intimacy with the
person that you're trying to kill. The whole idea of those was that you moved
into the person; you don't step away so that they can shoot you or stab you or
whatever. You actually get close to them so that you can touch them, feel
them, smell them, see their sweat, see their pores, and from that vantage
point, you actually are much more capable of inflicting damage and surprise on
an attacker than you would think.

GROSS: Was it kind of creepy to be watching this DVD about how to kill
someone?

Mr. CRONENBERG: Well, it's presented in a very matter-of-fact, pragmatic
kind of way, you know, with a great patina of professionalism and so on.
There wasn't just one. It was several. And so it kind of decreases the
creepiness. It sort of...

GROSS: The presumption is, you're the innocent victim who's...

Mr. CRONENBERG: Yeah, that's right. I mean, it...

GROSS: ...learning how to kill in self-defense, and you're a good guy. No
bad guys are watching this DVD.

Mr. CRONENBERG: That's right. And you're getting--and you're seeing
testimonials from old-aged pensioners in Miami, you know, who are saying, `I
feel much more secure walking down the street now that I know I can kill,' you
know? So it kind of takes the sinisterness out of it, which in a way makes it
even more sinister I suppose. And, of course, I have no idea whether I could
ever do that based on what I saw or not. You know, I mean, and certainly one
hopes never to have to figure that out.

GROSS: Now "A History of Violence" is--it's kind of like a Western, and in
part, because there's a character in it who has renounced violence but is
forced back into it in the way that a lot of characters in Westerns have been,
like Johnny Guitar, you know, the guy who gives up guns but has to pick them
up again because of threats against him and someone he loves. Was your style
of shooting this movie inspired by Westerns?

Mr. CRONENBERG: Not really the style, but certainly one of the things that
attracted me to the project was that kind of iconic Americana tone that there
is, and it's not just Westerns but gangster movies as well, and it's kind of,
you know, America's mythology of itself, which it has very successfully
exported to the rest of the world through its movies and its art and so on.
The man standing alone with a gun protecting himself and his family against
the bad guys and taking vengeance and having that be very justified because of
what he is and taking the law into his own hands is another very American
theme which is not particularly obvious in other countries, including Canada,
the idea that you--at a certain moment of crisis you must take the law into
your own hands, that sense of individualism and righteousness. The
righteousness of the individual is foreign to many countries, most countries,
I would say.

GROSS: There's two sex scenes in "A History of Violence" that are both very
passionate, and one of them is kind of playful and about role-playing, and the
other is much more in anger and in violence but still very, very passionate.
Actors in both scenes reveal a lot about the characters. Actors are always
talking about how difficult it is to perform the sex scenes and how
self-conscious they are and uncomfortable. What about directing scenes like
that? What are the challenges in directing them?

Mr. CRONENBERG: Well, the vulnerability both physically and psychologically
of actors in a sex scene is probably pretty obvious to most people, but there
is the same thing going on with the director. You know, the director's very
sexually inhibited or repressed or shy or embarrassed or anything else, it
inevitably is communicated to the crew and to the actors, and it makes them be
the same. And, therefore, you don't get a very good scene probably.

So it's really a matter of being funny, being loose, being specific, giving
the actors a sense that you know what you're doing. In my case, I make sure
that the actors can look at a monitor and see the recordings of what they just
shot at any moment so they know exactly what they look like and what's going
on; no secrets, no surprises to hit them later. And it's just being very
gentle and supportive, you know, and still, of course, getting what we want
but never letting go until we've got what we want.

Now the scene--there's a scene on the stairs, sex on the stairs, very hard
wooden stairs between Viggo and Maria Bello, and that was physically very
difficult, too, because she was really--they were both actually quite battered
and bruised after that, because it took a day and a half to shoot that, and
those were real wooden stairs. At one point I asked my stunt coordinator if
he had stunt pads, and he laughed and he said he'd never been asked for stunt
pads for a sex scene before. But, in fact, we couldn't use them because, you
know, you'd see them. So they had to do them without them. But, yeah, I
think it is a challenge, and I think some directors are very inhibited, and
you can tell. It gets communicated.

GROSS: Is it hard to not feel like, you know, you're a voyeur or a Peeping
Tom when you're setting up a scene like that?

Mr. CRONENBERG: You are totally a voyeur and a Peeping Tom, and it's better
if you just admit it, you know, because at that point, you are the audience as
well and you are watching. You're watching sex. I mean, it's not real sex,
but you're watching a simulation of sex. So this is something once again that
is joked about on my set. I mean, we all are in on the joke. There's, you
know, nobody who's not. So all of those aspects of it are out in the open,
and there's no--you know, nothing's covered up.

GROSS: My guest is director David Cronenberg. His latest film is "A History
of Violence." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is director David Cronenberg. His films include "Scanners,"
"The Dead Zone," "Dead Ringers," "The Fly" and "Naked Lunch." His latest film
is "A History of Violence."

I really like the opening shot of the movie. And when I saw it, I thought,
`Oh, this is going to be good.' And in the opening shot, two guys are walking
out the door of a motel room, and they're walking into bright sunlight and
they really have to squint. The sunlight really hits them, and you can tell
that they've come from a world that's, like, really dark...

Mr. CRONENBERG: Yes.

GROSS: ...into this bright light, and you figure there's something really
dark about these guys, and there certainly is. Can you talk about what you
try to do in an opening shot to establish the tone, the mood, because--and how
important do you think that opening shot is?

Mr. CRONENBERG: Well, you know, it's interesting. This movie, I don't have
an opening title sequence that's separate from the movie and I've often talked
about my enjoying doing that; that is to say making a title sequence that
isn't a scene from the movie so that people are not put in the position of
reading titles and watching the movie at the same time and using that title
sequence as a kind of vestibule, you know, to kind of ease the audience into
the movie from being in their own world and using that title sequence to set a
tone that will set them up for the movie.

In this case, I shot that scene and it's really--it's a single shot that lasts
for four minutes, and is quite a complex little shot with dollying and craning
and a few other things, not for spectacle. It's quite tight and intimate, but
it does go through some very difficult little moments. And there's a kind of
strange languidly sinister tone to these two guys, and they take their time
talking and I don't rush them. There's a lot of space between the words and
so on. And I really like that tone so much that even though I did shoot
coverage for it, which is to say shot--did other close-ups and so on so that I
could tighten the scene or whatever by cutting into it, I thought that the
one--the single shot worked so well that way that I would leave it and not cut
into it. And at that point, I felt, `Well, here's a perfect opening scene
that I think I could put titles over in a way that I haven't done for many,
many years,' and then, therefore, this shot would have to do two things. It
would have to be the first scene in the movie and it would have that vestibule
effect that I normally use a title sequence to get. That is, it would be a
scene that would tell the audience a lot about what they were getting into
with this movie.

And interestingly enough, too, there's no music over this shot, which is also
I think rather rare these days. Howard Shore, the composer--he composed some
pieces to try over this opening scene, and whatever we did, it gave too much
away. It pointed in a direction, and the scene itself is so kind of
sinisterly directionalist that it was actually better to have no music there.
So it turned out to be, I think, quite an important shot and quite an
important sequence for the movie because it does set up really an awful lot
the more you think about it.

You've written some of the movies you've directed, but "A History of Violence"
is an adaptation of a graphic novel. You were approached with the screen
adaptation of the graphic novel and decided to direct the film. Is there a
difference for you in how you approach material that you've written as opposed
to approaching material that you have not? And I'm wondering in a way if you
feel freer to take liberties with either of the two.

Mr. CRONENBERG: No, I feel free to take liberties with everything. You
know, I mean, to me, that's what I have to do. At the--my first adaptation
that was "The Dead Zone," an adaptation of the Stephen King best-seller, and
before that, all of the movies I had made I had written myself. They were
original screenplays, and I felt that--it immediately became obvious to me
that in order to be faithful to that book, I had to betray the book. In other
words, there is no way of translating a book to the screen because the two
media are so completely different. There is no dictionary for that
translation. You know, you really have to reinvent it totally for the scene.
And what you do is you try to capture the ambiance, you know, this tone of the
book rather than be faithful literally because if you try to do it literally
faithfully, you're doomed to failure. So taking liberties with adapted
material was as necessary as when you've written it yourself.

GROSS: I'm glad you mentioned "The Dead Zone." This starred Christopher
Walken as somebody who--when he touches someone, he can see their future. And
this was relatively early in Walken's career, and since then, you know, a lot
of comics and impressionists have affectionately mocked his very strange
pattern of speaking where accents fall on very unlikely words within
sentences. Were you aware of that when you were directing him, and did that
throw you at all?

Mr. CRONENBERG: No. I mean, I think it's a brilliant performance. You know,
remember, he had won an Oscar at that point.

GROSS: For "The Deer Hunter."

Mr. CRONENBERG: For "The Deer Hunter," yeah. He's a fine actor.

GROSS: Oh, yeah. Right.

Mr. CRONENBERG: You know, it's--but every actor has a specific kind of
rhythm and diction, and you develop a relationship in the editing room with
the actor that's a unique relationship. Nobody has that relationship other
than a director who's editing an actor because you live with that diction for,
well, weeks or months that you're editing the movie, and you become so attuned
to that.

When Chris wakes up from his coma in "The Dead Zone" and they tell him that
he's been gone for five years. He says, `Five years.' There was just a
wonderful--the surprise, you know, the shock and the horror of it all was
expressed just in those two words, and it was the way--it was the rhythm
between the two words, just having two words to work with, that expressed
that, and, you know, it's just fantastic.

GROSS: You've made a lot of films with very dark and potent fantasies in
them, and I want to quote something that you've said. You've said, "As an
artist, one is not a citizen of society. An artist is bound to explore every
aspect of human experience, the darkest concerns. You cannot worry about what
the structure of your own particular segment of society considers bad behavior
or good behavior. You have no social responsibility whatsoever." First of
all, does that--do you still agree with that?

Mr. CRONENBERG: Absolutely I do.

GROSS: Why do you think it's important for an artist to not be inhibited when
it comes to exploring the darkest parts of their imagination?

Mr. CRONENBERG: Well, this society does not tend to encourage people to tell
the truth. Society in general is interested in sustaining itself and that
includes whatever fictions, facades or hypocrisies that society needs to
sustain itself. So you are not encouraged really to tell the truth. You're
encouraged to be a good citizen, I mean in a bad sense, which is to say an
obedient citizen, one who toes the line, one who sort of accepts the standards
of society without question. And this is a natural thing. All societies have
this kind of gyroscopic need to sustain themselves, maintain themselves, and
that imparts a certain stability. But at the same time, if you only go with
that, then you never get improvements. You never get corrections of
injustices and so on. So you need the words of, you know, the rebels, the
artists, the people who will not accept reality as it is presented but figure
that there's something else going on, there's some other things--I don't
mean--I'm not talking about conspiracy theories. I'm talking about looking
for the truth about the way things work and how those things might be
improved. So it's a--you need both forces, though, you know, for
civilization. You need both of them.

I mean, in the Freudian formula, civilization is repression, you know,
repression of the most basic, base primitive instincts, but you don't get
civilization without a rebellion against repression as well, as in the
Freudian formula that would come from the unconscious and dreams and so.

GROSS: So are you working under the premise that most people have very dark
thoughts or fantasies that they wouldn't admit to in public and that it's in
part your job to talk about those things that people have but they won't
necessarily say that they do?

Mr. CRONENBERG: Yeah, I think that's true. I think if you imagine just
taking anybody asleep and drilling a hole in their forehead and having their
dreams projected onto a screen for a couple of thousand people as though it
were an entertainment, what do you think you'd see from anybody? You know, I
think you'd see some pretty--you'd see some boring stuff, but I think you'd
see some amazing things as well, you know, perhaps quite shocking, and it
would come from straight citizens of all kinds, you know, and it's all there.

GROSS: A couple of your movies are almost about that, like "Scanners" in a
way.

Mr. CRONENBERG: Yeah, I mean, that was...

GROSS: It almost operates on that principle.

Mr. CRONENBERG: Yeah, there is a hole drilled in a forehead in "Scanners,"
and I suppose I've been taking my metaphor that I just gave you from that.

GROSS: My guest is director David Cronenberg. His latest film is "A History
of Violence."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is director David Cronenberg. His films include "Scanners,"
"The Dead Zone," "Dead Ringers," "The Fly" and "Naked Lunch." Hist latest
film is "A History of Violence."

You've done several horror films. I mean, they're not standard horror films,
but they're, like, your take on horror films, and you've said that the horror
in horror films is about the inevitability of death. Do you think your
understanding of death and your way of addressing it has changed as you've
gotten older?

Mr. CRONENBERG: Well, I think my understanding has gotten deeper and more
profound. Yeah, I think so. I don't know that that really necessarily will
change the way that I deal with death in films. I said very early on that I
think as early as "Scanners," I seem to recall saying to somebody, `Every time
I kill somebody in my movie, I'm really rehearsing my own death, you know?
It's like a trial run to see how it would feel, to see how I would feel.' And
I still think there's still some truth in that. You know, that's why I don't
take death lightly in my films. It's always a very significant event.

GROSS: Does it give you a sense of control to be directing a death scene?
Because we really have no control over death, but as a director, for those
moments, you do.

Mr. CRONENBERG: Absolutely. I think that's one of the reasons that directors
become directors and actors become actors. It's--imagine the sense of control
you have as an actor to sort of die doing 10 takes in a movie and then you get
up and you're still alive, you know? It gives you a feeling of some kind of
immortality, even though you know it's a false sense, and it gives you a
feeling that perhaps in some way, you will be more prepared for your own
death, having rehearsed it so many times.

GROSS: Are there scenes in movies that you saw when you were young that
disturbed you, that you were afraid to go to sleep afterwards or that those
images would kind of come up and bother you and you couldn't get rid of them?

Mr. CRONENBERG: Oh, sure. "Bambi" terrified...

GROSS: "Bambi" with the fire?

Mr. CRONENBERG: Terrified. Terrified. Oh, the death of the parents and,
you know, "Dumbo," you know, the scene where Dumbo's bein

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